I often say “I should have gone to med school instead”, but last weekend for the first time in my life I meant it. I’ve wanted to be a vet since I was 9 years old, and I gave up everything to chase that dream. It was the only thing I have ever wanted to do, despite the low wage, lack of recognition and high suicide rates. But final year has broken me.
I am absolutely drained, not simply of energy but also of passion and conviction. Hard as I try I cannot will myself to pick up my books and study for yet another exam. I’ve recently been contemplating the idea that it simply isn’t worth it. All that effort put in and abuse taken, and almost half a million dollars in university fees, for a lifetime of shitty pay and a lack of recognition. To get told you aren’t a real doctor; that you don’t save real lives. No one becomes a vet for the money. But given the work and effort we put into it all, the massive discrepancies with regards to income and social recongition for the human and veterinary medical profession does get to me.
I’ve calculated that I have been made to work 130 hours over the past 2 weeks on my equine rotation. I know that to register as a vet you need to know about all the different species, regardless of whether you intend to ever work with them in the future. But it is an unrealistic expectation for students to remember every bit of information they had learnt over the past 6 years – especially when they are worked to the bone during the day and have little time outside of work to revise the material. I struggle with equine medicine, having never grown up around horses and having little interest in the subject area, and I got put down everyday for it: told I wasn’t good enough; and that I would make a shitty doctor. On a rainy saturday night I was involved in a minor car accident. I was ok, but my tyre had blown out. I hadn’t a tyre iron with me, and after getting some help from a friend, realised that my spare wheel was flat too. I emailed my supervisors saying that I wasn’t able to make it in time for morning treatments on sunday due to my circumstances, and was met with the cold reply that I should have ubered into work regardless. I think that was the breaking point for me. I called my mom sobbing and spent the next week endlessly worrying that I would be failed because of circumstances that were beyond my control.
I promised myself that regardless of my position in the future – if I ever make it as a specialist surgeon – that I would remember what is was like to be me right at this moment, that I would always treat my peers with respect and compassion. That I wouldn’t allow the stress and pressure get to me in such a way that I became destructive to the dreams of others.
When people meet me they say “Wow you must really love animals to choose veterinary medicine”. But in truth it is because I don’t like people. A dog bites because it is fearful and a lion kills because it is hungry. But we have an ability to be unkind despite intelligent reasoning. It is unkindness without a cause.
Come to think of it, the things that have been getting to me lately have been due to the words and actions of people, rather than my work with the animals. My faith in people (and myself) is broken, but my yearning to help animals remains unchanged. So maybe I don’t actually mean it when I say I should have gone to med school instead. And maybe this isn’t a dream I should give up on just yet.
I spent the past week learning and working in an animal sanctuary in Malaysia. I stayed in a gorgeous house of bamboo walls and thatched roof filled with rescue cats, dogs, snakes and fish. I started work sometime between 12pm – 2pm and finished between 8pm – 12am. There was no electricity outside of these times, and no WiFi either. I spent all my free time reading when it was light enough and watching Harry Potter on my laptop when it got too dark. I made sure to pat every single dog and cat within my quarters before bed every night – even the little yappy ones I didn’t particularly like, lest they felt left out. It was a week of work experience that felt nothing short of a country vacation. It was a forced break from the busyness of my everyday life that I hadn’t known I needed.
The shelter housed about 700 dogs, 300 cats, half a dozen macaques, 1 gibbon, 12 horses and 2 snakes. I worked exclusively in the hospital, mostly performing castrations, abortions and ovariohysterectomies as part of a catch-neuter-release program for stray dogs and cats. This was the main purpose of my trip to Malaysia – to learn about shelter medicine, but mostly to gain the surgical experience I was so badly lacking. It was a bit intense because I would be showed how to perform a surgery once and then left to my own devices with an anaesthetised animal in front of me. It forced me to have more confidence in my skills and knowledge, and to make my own decisions involving my patients.
I think I have improved vastly in the short period of time I was there, but I know that I still have a long long way to go; there is always more knowledge to be acquired and practice to be had. In university I am taught only the gold-standard treatments and options. My main struggle at the shelter was therefore having to set that aside and adopt other methods that are both time and cost-saving but defied the teachings of my professors. But that is how the real world works: as a doctor I will not always have the time or resources to perform the gold standard tests and treatments. I will be limited by my clients finances, and my patients condition. It is a vital skill I need to learn, to be able to come up with treatment plans that cater to the needs of all these factors.
I am so thankful for the opportunity to have learnt as much as I have in the past week. And I am so excited for all that is to come – to learn and to better my skills and knowledge. I am beyond privileged and I am grateful.
On Friday I sat in my last official vet-school lecture, this was really exciting because it has been 5 years of countless lectures, and this marks our transition into our final year of rotations within the hospital. I am both equally stoked and terrified to actually leave the desk and start having to interact with clients/ do actual doctor things (because now I could really mess up in a tangible way- there are risks involved!). Whenever I look back at all my old notes, I always marvel at how much knowledge I have tried to cram into my brain- and subsequently failed to retain (what even is microbiology, immunology and pharmacology now?!). But mostly, I can’t believe how many hours upon hours I have invested in trying to memorise everything about everything. It’s all passed so quickly. I can still remember my first year in uni as a wide-eyed girl solemnly lamenting the fact that 6 years is a long time (like repeating primary school), and shaking my head in disbelief when the seniors told me that it’d fly be in a blink of an eye. Here I am posing with the lecture notes I have collected (and trees I have killed) over the years (sans textbooks because my pile would topple over my head and make me dumber than I already am).
It is a fairly large pile because we have on average about 15hours of lectures a week – and 5 years of so. Here is what my timetable for this semester mostly looks like.
My class celebrated with snacks and champagne at 9am in the morning, and the celebrations continued well into the night. I think many very close friendships are formed within vet school because it is such a specialised degree- you see the same few faces in all the same class, every day over very many years. You suffer together through the poop and the blood, and also the mental breakdowns and anxiety attacks. I really am thankful for all the friends I have made, I know that I wouldn’t have made it this far without their help and support.
Now I just have to sit my final exams before I can.. immediately commence 6 weeks of clinical placement (what even are holidays?? What is rest? What is sleep?) But I am looking forward to finishing the exams none-the-less. Here’s to hoping that I will stop being a complacent embarrassment to my family and actually study harder than I do right now. Here’s to hoping I will pass, so I don’t have to go through another last-lecture-ever.
I actually have the most wonderful friends, but this is just such a beautiful song.
And I am no stranger to feeling alone, even when you are surrounded by the people you love. These past few weeks have been tiring and stressful and whilst I have been coping well, I have seen far too many of my classmates succumb to the pressure; I recently wrote this message to a friend who was was on the verge of giving up, but I felt that maybe there were more people out there who needed to hear this- so this is for you, if you feel burnt-out and alone:
~~ I know that vet school is tough and you feel like you are running in quicksand. But Remember to take a breather and realise how far you’ve come. You end every year with just so much more knowledge, and it makes you that much closer to becoming a Dr/ surgeon. 5 years ago we had no idea how to even catch a horse or properly auscultate a cat. And now you’ve performed surgeries, monitored anaesthesia, calculated drug doses and don’t even think twice about loading cows into crushes or interacting with clients. I know it gets harder every year, and that the work never seems to end. But you are so close, and you are not alone- neither in the physical struggle with the sheer amount of study content or the mental isolation. You’ve come a very very long way, so don’t ever discount that fact or devalue your sacrifices and efforts by not also realising that what you’ve achieved so far is incredible as it is. I think you are pretty great- even if you don’t think so. ~~
If we are friends but just don’t really hang out, or if we are strangers but you just really need someone to talk to right now, send me a text or a Facebook message. I will buy you a coffee, we can hang out. 🙂
Remember that you have made it through every worst day of your life so far.
And that people care- even the ones you least expect to.
Remember that you are not alone. Ever.
I am now in the midst of my final exams- the 9th set of end-semester university exams I will be sitting.
This is how a typical day goes for me:
I get up at 10am and have some cereal before heading down to the library. I study until 5pm and then it is time for a run, dinner and a shower. I get back to the library by 7pm and leave at 3.30am. I go to bed at 4am and the day starts again. I am a far more efficient worker at night because there are lesser distractions, however this really messes with my body clock when my exams are in the early morning. I generally go to bed at 3am the night before an exam and get up at 6-7am to study if the paper is at 9.30am. I pay back the sleep debt when I get home and reward myself with a couple of hours of aimlessly browsing the internet or watching a movie.
This is supposedly the most academically demanding year of my entire degree- last year 60% of the cohort failed the Small Animal Surgery exam, and I am really struggling with studying Equine Medicine because I neither have any background knowledge nor interest in horses! And there is just SO much content. Surprisingly though, I have yet to have a mental breakdown this year (For the first time ever)- previous years have seen me dissolving into a sobbing mess from the stress of it all. I don’t know if this is because I am used to the routine of studying for my finals, or because I simply- to put it crudely- do not give 2 shits anymore.
And I think this is where we all need a reminder that as much as we are studying to make the grade, we are also working hard because this might one day make the difference between life and death for a patient.
But God, it is so hard to keep motivated when after 12 hours of staring at your books you start feeling a buzzing in your ears and start seeing black spots cloud your vision.
I have come to accept that the older you get the harder it becomes to form genuine bonds with people and forge meaningful relationships. I don’t think I am bad with people. I work as a math and stats tutor in my university, my entire job revolves around speaking in front of a lecture hall full of students and bonding with them weekly during class. It can’t be that I am inherently shy if I’m never worried about speaking up. And it can’t be that I simply don’t know how to talk to people because I do think I do quite well with the past 4 semesters of students I have worked with- all of whom started out as strangers.
So why then, do I feel extremely confident in certain groups but not others- say, the friends of my boyfriend. I have always come up with the reasoning that we are just too different people. My entire life during the semester revolves around working and studying (because how can it not when vet school is so intense). Failing is not on the cards for me because my school fees are $47,000 yearly and I literally (not just figuratively) don’t think I could afford to repeat a year. For them it is different, they have half the hours of classes I do and a quarter of the fees to pay, and can invest their time in the more fun side of life: parties, lots of hanging out and the occasional narcotic. We are very different people because I have never smoked or gotten drunk or been in a club, and those are their weekly rituals.
But surely it cannot just be because we lead different lifestyles, like I mentioned, I never have a problem with talking to my students, and all of them are doing different courses and lead different lives from me. I find myself having a hard time deciding if I am an introvert or an extrovert; if I suck at forging friendships or just don’t try hard enough anymore. Mostly I find myself asking if there is a difference and if it even matters at all anymore.
I think I have come to realise that there isn’t a cookie cut label you can tag yourself with. I don’t think I was an extroverted kid that grew to become an introverted adult. I think it is just that as adults we have had 20 odd years or more to forge our own ideas and perceptions of what makes an individual fun or interesting and worthy of the effort it takes to form a friendship. Time matters more and more the older you get and you don’t want to waste your time trying to bond with people you don’t think you really enjoy hanging out with, or will actually successfully form a bond with. I think I do take quite liberal chances with people, and I try never to let the fear of awkwardness get in the way of establishing or re-establishing bonds. If a stranger or a forgotten friend sent me a Facebook message I am always one to reply. But first and foremost there must be a mutual interest, I think. And that is what is lacking; a friendship can only be formed when both parties think the other is worth the time. And that is shaped mostly by our thoughts and what we perceive to be fun, successful or interesting. So maybe the very simple reason I find it easy to befriend strangers in certain scenarios and hard in others is that we are too different. It is nobody’s fault. And I should stop beating myself up about it.
So much has happened this year. It’s been so hard- So hard. And I’ve been so blessed, I can’t deny it. If you haven’t heard, I’ve completed my first degree in Veterinary Biology. Only two and a half more years to go and I can hopefully fill in random street surveys as a Dr Jol. This will be my 5th year away from home, and I am 22 now. I can’t really believe it. This semester I’m taking on surgery, diagnostic imaging, small animal general practice and anaesthesia. It’s been terribly exciting- we’ve learnt to scrub up (I’m bad at this as my arms get tired after half an hour of holding my hands up above my elbows), and yesterday we learnt about 10 different ways to suture a wound or incision site. It’s also been pretty full on- we have so many hours of lectures and labs every week and I can hardly keep up. Last friday I had 6 hours of lectures spanning from 8.30am-3.30pm, after which I had an early dinner in the library before reporting for my night rotation at the hospital which lasted til 11pm. It so much fun, but also so exhausting. It makes me feel so inadequate but also makes me feel like I’m finally on my way.
Yet I still feel like I am stuck in the same place I’ve always been; chugging my arms with all my might but unable to gain any traction. I’ve felt more vulnerable this year than I have in a long time. And I wish I could take a break- go home. Hug my friends, spend time with my aging dog and be surrounded by family. I didn’t want my mom to fly in specifically for such a menial occasion but it was hard being at my Halfway Day (basically our graduation from our 1st degree) and seeing everyone with their families and friends, and having sparsely any there. My family came to visit 2 months ago and it brought me the most joy in a long time. It was so hard saying goodbye, I pulled up outside some industrial park outside the airport and bawled my eyes out. I wish they could have whisked me away, too. You never outgrow the safety and security of being surrounded by family.
It hasn’t stopped raining these past few day. The rain in Perth is thin and cold- like needles. Maybe it’s the rain.